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False Teeth: The GOP's 'War' on ISIS

01/26/2016 07:14 am ET | Updated Jan 26, 2016
Bloomberg via Getty Images

For those who value humanity, ISIS is the antediluvian embodiment of human darkness. Beheading hostages on film. Raping women and girls. Pedophilia. Sexual enslavement. Throwing homosexuals from rooftops. Destroying antiquities. Enforcing ignorance and rooting out knowledge. Slaughtering those of different faiths -- Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shia. Despising all other forms of governance, whether democratic or authoritarian. ISIS doesn't simply "hate our values" -- they hate every value but theirs.

Their adherents have visited death anywhere they can -- the Middle East, Africa, France, Turkey, Indonesia, Afghanistan, the United States. Far from a "clash of civilizations," ISIS' jihad is against civilization itself. It feeds on, and feeds, alienation and fanaticism. Its imperatives are non-negotiable, its apocalyptic nihilism beyond the reach of reason. Its primal loathing of the other cannot be stilled by "carpet bombing" or "declaring war." It cannot be avoided by withdrawal or wishful thinking, or defeated by bellicose rhetoric.

Inevitably, ISIS has become a significant campaign issue -- particularly important, polls tell us, to Republican primary voters. The realities of confronting ISIS are diabolically complicated -- perhaps too complex, given the constraints of campaigning, for any candidate to fully describe. But we can only evaluate their fitness for leadership by first considering those realities, then comparing them to what the candidates choose to say.

To start, any leader who wants to address this scourge responsibly must deal with a harsh geopolitical terrain. The context for stanching ISIS resembles a Hobbesian state of nature. Syria, Iraq and Libya are failing or failed states, a condition which -- depending on your point of view -- owes much to our actions, our failures to act, or both.

Thus the theater within which ISIS operates is inhospitable indeed -- a key point in evaluating a candidate's prescriptions for military action. Syria is a violent and chaotic nightmare riven by contending forces -- the enemies of our enemy, ISIS, are hardly our friend. Iraq is a fractious mess ridden by a multiplicity of sectarian hatreds and rivalries, including those between and among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.

Sunni and Shia at war with each other and, at times, with themselves. More broadly, the region is marbled with fissures which make an alliance against ISIS difficult indeed. The Turks fear and despise the Kurds, who some candidates cite as a principal weapon against ISIS. The Saudis and Iranians are deeply inimical, the Egyptians gravely concerned with their own security. In Syria, the Russians are trying to prop up Assad. The affinity of Boko Haram with ISIS menaces Nigeria and its neighbors. The bipolar world of the Cold War inspires nostalgia by comparison.

Worse, some of the supposed allies -- notably the Saudis -- on whom candidates propose to rely are anything but reliable. For years the Saudi leadership has financed and exported terrorism as a safety valve to reduce pressure on their own regime. Instead of throwing their weight against ISIS, the Saudis are fighting a brutal sectarian war in Yemen, strengthening Al Qaeda.

Most recently, their execution of Shia dissidents at home -- another calculated and diversionary effort to stoke sectarianism in order to buttress their regime -- roiled the region and hamstrung efforts to find a common diplomatic approach to the mess in Syria. If our best hope is relying on solipsistic and duplicitous autocracies who suppress their own people, our strategy going forward is flawed at its heart.

Nor, despite what some candidates tell us, is there a clear military prescription. Bombing in itself is patently insufficient. Worse, ISIS has cleverly deployed in heavily populated cities where bombing campaigns would decimate civilians. Ultimately, any sustained success against ISIS on the ground must involve a coalition of Byzantine complexity -- Americans, Europeans, Russians, Iranians, Sunnis, Shia, Kurds and even, God help us, perhaps some iteration of the Syrian regime -- all of whom have disparate and often opposing interests

As for Iraq's army, it is ineffectual, corrupt, and crippled by the enmity between Sunnis and the Shia who run the government in Baghdad. Thus our current partners in the ground war have been largely ineffective. And what may become the heart of our strategy -- arming, training, supporting and advising Kurds and Sunnis in Iraq and Syria -- would inevitably require some deployment of American troops to assist two groups with distinctly different agendas.

Despite these difficulties, there is considerable mention among the candidates of relying on the Kurds -- sometimes in concert with Sunnis. But because of their rivalry with Sunni and Shia alike, Kurdish fighters can be effective only in areas dominated by Kurds -- not in key cities like Raqqa and Ramadi. The Sunnis bridle at fighting for a hostile Shia government closely tied to Iran. And the precipitous drop in oil prices has led to a financial crisis for both the Kurds and Iraqis, straining their resources while deepening the divide between them.

Add to this the ongoing problem of Shiite Iran itself, which continues to advance its destabilizing regional ambitions through military surrogates. Given its deep involvement in Syria and Iraq, we have no choice but to deal with its leaders. But the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militia in both countries is a key component of Sunni alienation. Thus it may be difficult to persuade Sunnis to fight ISIS if they believe that its successor will be oppressive Iranian surrogates.

To say the least, all this is problematic -- if not indecipherable -- for an American public weary of war in the Middle East and impatient with drawn out commitments for and certain ends. But our challenges are also demographic, and spread around the globe.

ISIS' loathing for modernity does not prevent its skillful use of the internet for propaganda and recruitment. Europe's failure to assimilate its Muslim populace creates a seedbed for recruitment; the tragic migration of Syrians and Libyans exacerbates the problem. The candidates who would confront this simply by walling off refugees simplify the problem: unless these migrants can be properly settled, employed and educated to the greatest possible degree -- however and wherever it is done -- there awaits an international security problem of the first order, a generation adrift and subject to radicalization.

Xenophobia is no refuge. Stigmatizing Muslims down to last five-year-old orphan, in itself inhumane, creates more hatred yet. And the best way to breed homegrown terrorists is to make American Muslims feel like strangers in their own land.

Yet we cannot minimize the danger of transnational terrorism. Borders are permeable; the internet transcends borders. America is vulnerable. The greatest threat -- nuclear terrorism -- is far from remote. If this is a war, it is the very worst kind -- without a locus, its "fronts" everywhere.

Given the confluence of all these factors, the next president will face challenges which would test a leader with unique experience and skills. And then there is the equally important challenge of distilling all this for an electorate stunned by the seeming swiftness of ISIS' rise.

Americans -- not sophisticated about geopolitical issues in the best of times -- are scared and confused. We are at odds about how much surveillance is enough.The majority lack faith in the ability of our president and government to deal with a menace they do not truly understand. And Barack Obama's careless labeling of ISIS as a "JV team" invested his understandable prudence -- the resolve to avoid actions with grave unintended consequences -- with an appearance of uncertainty.

Granted, there are some recent signs of incremental progress. ISIS has lost territory. Obama is taking measured steps to take advantage of this -- planning for more special operations troops and stepped-up training for local forces, winning a pledge of increased resources from key allies. But his tenure provides a case study in the difficulties which attend every choice, as well as a warning to candidates who would simplify the fight against ISIS.

The tenuous effort to raise a "moderate" Syrian opposition has been an embarrassing failure; the intervention in Libya abetted chaos; Obama's abrupt pull back from the "red line" against Assad led to the removal of chemical weapons, but created uncertainty among his allies and the public. Beyond this, some critics assert that Obama was too quick to accede to the demand by erstwhile Iraqi leader Maliki that U.S. troops should leave, and thereby contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq.

Perhaps. But the biggest enabler of ISIS was Maliki himself, an incompetent Shia schemer who gutted leadership of the Army, largely destroying its capacity to fight; alienated Sunnis, many of whom embraced ISIS; and cemented Iranian influence in Iraq.

Undoubtedly, Maliki's depredations against the Sunnis quickened after the departure of U.S. troops. Still, it cannot be asserted with real confidence that a residual American force could have restrained -- at least in a decisive way -- a "democratically elected" Iraqi leader so bent on policies which hollowed out his country. In any event, this question is now academic -- all most Americans know is that Iraq seems even worse than before Obama took office.

Thus it is difficult for the electorate to take comfort in Obama's sober assessment: that a key to defeating ISIS is to avoid a military overreaction which once again casts us as occupiers. And yet the majority of Americans do not want to express our resolve by sending troops back to the Middle East. They are, in short, as muddled as the tortuous dilemma we confront, a geopolitical Rubik's Cube.

In such a maelstrom, one must hope that our leading presidential candidates would disdain shallow rhetoric for sober truths. For what Barack Obama has grappled with will face the next president: a struggle with no clear means to a good end, where every action or inaction carries risks, and each decision has multiple consequences, intended or not.

Credit Hillary Clinton with a good-faith effort to deal with this complexity. True, she is tarred with the shortfalls in Obama's policies, and one of her departures from the president -- proposing a no-fly zone over Syria -- seems half formed. While she argues that this measure "would help us on the ground to protect Syrians," she declined in debate to say whether the U.S. would shoot down a Syria Russian plane -- a relevant question, to say the least. Asked about a role for Russia with respect to Syria, she responded, "Well, I hope we're not turning to the Russians." In fact, we already are, and small wonder -- they are already there.

Still, her general plan is measured and consistent with reality. An enhanced bombing campaign supported by more robust intelligence resources. Arming and training Sunnis in Iraq who are willing to fight, assisted by a complement of American soldiers. Assembling a larger force of Allied troops to battle ISIS on the ground. Stopping the flow of foreign fighters into the war zone by, among other things, persuading Turkey to close its borders. Enhanced intelligence and counterterrorism operations with Europe. With all this comes an important limitation: that taking on ISIS should not become an American flight.

As modest as this is, achieving these steps would be no easy matter. (Note: Bernie Sanders says that "[t]he United States should be part of an international coalition, led and sustained by nations in the region that have the means to protect themselves," but has not yet spelled out particulars.) While Clinton's approach is a bit more muscular than Obama's, it seems not that different -- an acknowledgment we are in for a long, difficult and complex struggle.

Modesty -- at least of the rhetorical kind -- does not distinguish the leading GOP contenders. In order to get to the nub of their actual plans, it is first necessary to dispatch the puerile and outright silly, if only to illustrate the disservice they are doing to the electorate. Here Marco Rubio is a good place to start.

Routinely, and irresponsibly, he panders to the Sheldon Adelsons of the world by conflating ISIS with its mortal enemy, Iran, and, as preposterous, the Palestinians. He calls our confrontation with ISIS a "clash of civilizations" -- foolishly apocalyptic rhetoric which glorifies ISIS while overlooking that it hates every kind of civilization but its own. He claims that ISIS does not oppose us because of our presence in the Middle East, but "because of our values" -- ignoring that it originated to fight American forces in Iraq. By Rubio's logic, ISIS also hates the values of those noted democrats Vladimir Putin and the Saudi royals.

But most embarrassing is Rubio's stated plan for special operations against ISIS "where we strike them, we capture or kill their leaders, we videotape the operations" because "I want the world to see how these ISIS leaders cry like babies" and "begin to sing like canaries..."

Skip over the efficacy of Rubio's cinematic ambitions. Why will jihadist killers begin acting like stoolies in a '30s gangster movie? What do actual military strategists think about the downside of a plan to insert American soldiers in hostile territory, film their victory, and that extract the soldiers and their hostages for the sake of propaganda films? And what will President Rubio do when ISIS begins using captured American soldiers in a horrific movies of its own?

The mildest thing which can be said is that Rubio imagines that rhetoric is reality, and posturing is policy. But while somewhat less baroque, his competitors' flights of fancy are no better.

Ted Cruz assures us that: "If I am elected president, I will direct the Department of Defense to destroy ISIS." If only Barack Obama had thought of that. Fleshing out this vision, Cruz says that: "We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out" -- causing the former head of the Army War College to remark on his ignorance of modern bombing tactics.

Cruz then proceeded to prove the point. Asked by Wolf Blitzer how he would avoid decimating civilians, Cruz replied that he would carpet bomb "where ISIS troops are, not a city" -- ignoring that ISIS embeds its forces in cities. No doubt this explains his claim that we won the first Gulf War by "carpet bombing" when no such bombing occurred.

Donald Trump? His plan to register Muslim Americans is an ISIS propaganda dream come true. But not to worry, Trump will have closed those "parts of" the internet which are in Syria and Iraq. By then, of course, he will have brought ISIS to its knees by taking its oil and bombing its leaders' families -- imagining, apparently, that fanatic jihadists can be cowed like recalcitrant sub-contractors. And when all else fails he will "bomb the hell out of them." If, as Trump suggests, he gets his military insights from watching Meet The Press, he has not been listening hard enough.

Like his peers, Chris Christie equates rhetorical helium with moral urgency. According to Christie, this is the next "world war." Fortunately for us, the governor will bring to this fight some truly unique capacities -- in debate he proposed to meet face-to-face with Jordan's King Hussein, who has been dead for 16 years. Christie would have us believe that a U.S. attorney in New Jersey -- Christie himself -- was a first line of national defense after 9/11. Which, apparently, obviates the need for a coherent policy against ISIS, at least until Christie dreams one up.

Nowhere do these would-be commanders in chief confront an essential task of leadership -- telling Americans hard truths about the devilish complications any president will face. Instead, yet again, chest-thumping replaces reality. Despite their insistance that they, like the Democrats, intend to rely on other countries to carry the major military burden, they barely acknowledge that this cannot be done by fiat. Even less do they concede that tough talk is no substitute for the arduous diplomacy indispensable to rallying foreign leaders with different interests to undertake this daunting task.

To the contrary, the example of Christie illustrates a further vulgarity in the Republicans' discussion of this difficult and urgent question -- a characterization of Obama and his policies through insults verging on demagoguery. Inexplicably, Christie suggests that Obama's nuclear deal with Iran fed the creation of ISIS. Calling the president "a feckless weakling," Christie brays that "America has been betrayed" by Obama and Clinton

Ever the competitor, Rubio claims that Obama has "deliberately weakened America" and is "completely overwhelmed." "When America needed a bold plan of action from our commander-in-chief," Rubio goes on, "we instead got a lecture on love, tolerance and gun control designed to please the talking heads at MSNBC." Really. As for Cruz, he asserts that Obama's alleged weakness is due to excessive "political correctness" and, remarkably, that Obama is "willing to use military force [only] if it benefits radical Islamic terrorists." And so on, ad nauseam.

The coda to all this is that Obama and Clinton lack the moral courage to explicitly connect ISIS with the Islamic faith. Rubio castigates Clinton for declining to say that America is "at war with radical Islam." He then invokes this remarkable analogy: Clinton's restraint is "like saying we weren't at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi party but not violent themselves." A would-be president capable of comparing Muslims at large to Nazis may well be incapable of questioning the wisdom of linking ISIS with the broader Islamic religion -- let alone the relevance of such linkage to political and military success.

But the Republicans' rhetoric, and their actual proposals, exist on different planets. Here is the reality: when one scratches the rhetorical surface, there is little actual distinction between Clinton and the GOP contenders. The principal differences between Clinton and Obama -- supporting a no-fly zone and safe zones in Syria -- are also the principal differences between Obama and Republicans Rubio and Christie. Both Rubio and Clinton would do more to confront ISIS -- however difficult that may be -- in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as to this, Trump and Cruz take a more cautious position than Clinton or Rubio, one more akin to Obama's.

Beyond this, looking for substance from Christie or Trump is a fool's errand. Best to examine Rubio and Cruz -- between whom emerges an illuminating and stark disparity.

First, Rubio. One area of agreement with Obama is that the area is dangerously split between Sunni and anti- Sunni governments in Syria and Iraq. Therefore, both men agree, Sunni populated areas currently dominated by ISIS -- including in Iraq -- need some form of governance by Sunnis.

Beyond this, Rubio, like Clinton, would deploy air controllers in Syria and Iraq to provide more air support; use American special operations forces to assist the Iraqis and other allies; try to raise anti-Assad fighters in Syria; and directly arm the Kurdish and Sunni tribal forces. One potential divergence deserves a deeper discussion of its rationale and consequences: Rubio seems more willing than Clinton to commit American ground troops, perhaps in large numbers, to the fight against ISIS.

Cruz opposes such involvement. Far from being more hawkish, he links Rubio to Clinton as reflexively interventionist -- including with respect to the intervention in Libya, which he labels a "massive foreign policy blunder." Eschewing "nation building," Cruz argues that it s foolish for America to be "a Woodrow Wilson democracy promoter." Far better, he asserts, to support dictators like Gaddafi and Mubarak -- no matter their "terrible human rights record" -- because they are allies in "fighting radical Islamic terrorists."

Disdaining involvement in Syria, he says that "we have no dog in the fight of the Syrian Civil War." With respect to who will take on ISIS, he asserts that "the Kurds are our boots on the ground" -- ignoring the limited territory within which the Kurds wish, or are able, to operate. As to using American troops, Cruz mocks "politicians who like to support boots on the ground in every conflict across the globe in an effort to... show how tough they are."

Fair enough -- though one notes that Cruz may share this sentiment with his bete noir Barack Obama. This raises a very pregnant question: beyond the tough-sounding chimera of carpet bombing, how does Cruz propose to combat ISIS? One cannot tell. So perhaps all that distinguishes Cruz from Obama is the empty rhetoric of an armchair general, best consigned to a video game.

Thus the real difference is not between Clinton and the Republicans at large, but between Rubio and Cruz. This is worthy of serious debate -- indeed, it is central to the foreign policy identity of the Republican Party and, therefore, important to the country at large.

Yet the GOP contenders have largely skirted this divide. They are too busy hurling insults at Clinton and Obama while telling us that they, and only they, can protect us from a Democratic candidate whose proposals for combating ISIS are little different from theirs. By simplifying a danger which defies simplification, they mislead the fellow citizens they propose to lead, treating us with condescension and contempt.

To be fit to lead, they owe us better.

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